Loneliness rips her apart every time a wave breaks, spreading sea foam and losses over the sand, so she moves further between the trees and away from the beach. Feet sink in the mud, dead leaves caress her skin and branches grab the wet fabric of the old, stained clothes.
Laguna is her name from the life before, she still clings to it. No one remembers it now, or no one ever asked—she often forgets exactly how it happened, how she decayed. When the sun escapes the canopies and hits the water just right, she gets a glimpse at her reflection. Still young on the outside, hollow eyes showing the dark path within, deeper and scarier than the ocean abyss.
The mangrove is not quite home although she has lived in it for many years now. Some days the roots contorting above the water feel like prison, other times the ever-present shade gives as much comfort as a refuge could. That forest, trapped like her between land and sea, offered Laguna the same it gave to every other creature—a place to hide, maybe even a place to grow.
Beneath the sound of waves crashing on the surrounding beach, distant footsteps cross the murky puddles. Muffled voices, laughter here and there. Crab hunters going home, probably, the only ones from the village that ever venture far into the forest—the others are afraid of the mangrove, of Laguna, and the knowledge she carries about those who come to her in dark hours.
They always come.
Sometimes an unwanted child, discovered right after a few moons with no blood. Other times a belly as round as pufferfish, ready to burst open, and yet the baby refuses to leave. Every once in a while, some come for a spell—a womb that won’t quicken or eyes that won’t meet across the market. The reasons vary and come and go as sure as the tides. The villagers like to pretend they don’t want or need her services, but they always come. They cross the mud, jump over branches, pretend they don’t see the slimy creatures watching their suffering, and they beg.
And although Laguna despises them, she always heeds.
Night has covered the canopies when she reaches her hut, sitting lonely atop a sandy island. The house has a round shape, built out of fallen trunks so twisted that one might think it had sprouted from the ground. It had been there when she first arrived, waiting like a gift and a curse from the forest, a small place to live safely and to be reminded that there was no one to share it with. An island within a forest, a bubble in the sea, a woman in the world. Later the high tide will bring the waters right to her doorsteps, but it is the moment of the day when the walk is deceptively easy. Silt gives way to firmer sand, leaves scattered around, a seed here and there, and she is home.
The cormorants nesting above the rooftop stare silently at her progress, non-judging and unhelpful and still the only company she has—during the day, Laguna would share her fish with them, and they might share a few secrets in return.
She lights up a fire and stares through the only window. Sleep never comes easy, it is not something she did in her previous existence and still has not taken up the habit. Listening to the slow rise of the water, the sea invading both that unclaimed territory and her memories, Laguna counts her losses. In her wandering, she misses the sounds of sloshed steps, the panting of a tired throat.
Someone hits the door.
It is a woman, barely leaving the girlhood years behind. Her eyes are wide and bulged, she heaves from the recent effort, grabbing the belly of an advanced pregnancy.
Laguna moves away so she can come inside. This one she has seen before, walking with the crab hunter boys.
“They are going to take her from me.” The girl enters, leaning on the walls until she finds the bed. She falls on it and takes a huge breath before going on. “It is not the time yet, is it? But I need to have the child now. You can do it, can’t you, Mother Mangue?”
The name always amuses her, she doesn’t know where it comes from. When they don’t need her, she is just the witch. When they are desperate, she is suddenly a mother ready to help. Mother Mangue.
“Raise your dress,” she commands, hearing the dryness of her own voice.
“I’m Nana,” the girl says as she obeys. Laguna never asks for names, but they always offer them anyway. It makes them less afraid, as if knowing their names would make her somehow kinder.
“How long has it been?”
“A little more than seven moons, I think. I’m not sure, I…it was my first time, I didn’t…” Nana’s hand begins to tremble, grabbing the cloth covering the bed. She doesn’t cry, even though the tears are threatening to escape. “He loves me, though. We are running always together. I need to have this baby today, so we can run away before they take my child from me.”
Laguna listens without comments. They like to talk—to explain—as much as they like to offer names. Telling stories is a way to pretend they are in control of the world.
“Will she live, Mother Mangue?” Nana asks in a whisper, her greatest fear finally slipping through the words. “If it happens tonight…will she live?”
Nana nods, a trembling smile reaching her face as she caresses the belly. “I feel it.”
Laguna knows better than to question such feelings. Her hand runs through the line marking the stretched skin, sensing the life inside. Not for the first time she wonders what the feeling is like. The title of Mother Mangue sometimes feels like irony—it is an unavoidable fate, it seems, that a woman’s life must revolve around motherhood even when she cannot give birth to children of her own.
It is indeed a ‘she’ inside, although people not always know what that means. The little being is healthy, moving as if feeling the apprehension of the mother. Laguna can do it—has done it enough times before.
“But you cannot travel,” she warns.
“What do you mean?”
“She will live, but you cannot travel today. Both of you will need time to recover.”
There is a hurried knock on the door. Both women jump with surprise, Laguna curses herself for not paying attention a second time in the same night.
It is a crab hunter boy and he barges in. He runs to Nana and for a moment they become a mass of limbs and mouths grabbing each other so tight that it is uncomfortable to watch. The kiss is full of longing and relief and what seems dangerously like true love. He touches the belly and places a gentle kiss there as well, Nana covers her mouth and inhales deep—she still doesn’t cry, even though her eyes are as full to the brim as the high tide.
Memories threaten to surface so Laguna drowns them again. It is useless to revisit the past. She once was a girl waiting for a boy that never came, she is now fruit of that waiting and there is nothing to be done about it.
“Will you help us, Mother Mangue?” he asks, still holding them.
“I’d be more willing if you had not invaded my house, boy,” she grumbles, turning to the table full of jars with herbs and flowers. “You and your little friends avoid me like the plague during the day, and during the night you come demanding help as if I was a crab ready to be plucked out of the mud.”
“You have to help us!”
“Ian!” Nana shushes him.
“I don’t have to do anything, boy. My obligations are not to you or any person who remembers me only when they need me.” Still, she already has a pot in hand to mix the ingredients.
The couple argues through whispers. More than once, she notices how Nana holds him back. Often Laguna wonders if men ever stop seeing women like their mothers, and perhaps she is better off without the boy that abandoned her.
“Mother Mangue…please. I’ll do anything,” Nana says. She rises slowly and walks to the other side of the table. “Don’t mind Ian, he is just desperate. He has already gathered the things we need to run, and we are going to. But it will be easier to hide if I am not pregnant.”
“Do you think a child is easy to hide? When you are not much beyond a child yourself?”
“My family will be looking for a pregnant girl, not for a couple with a baby.”
“Not for long.”
“Not for two moons, this is enough time.”
Laguna stares at her from across the table, the dim light casting more maturity than is right for the years the girl has. It could be done, she had before.
“It would be easier to kill.”
“No!” Ian rushes to their side, trying to pull the girl aside.
Nana raises a hand to stop him, the other holding her belly. Still, she doesn’t cry, and although her jaw trembles like a leave on the wind, her voice comes out unshakable.
Once more the boy obeys, it seems certain who is going to protect who on the days to come.
“She is mine, and I am having her, one way or the other.”
It is the glow in the eyes more than the story that gets to her. Countless couples have come desperately to that door—a tea to empty a belly, a blessing for a sick woman, a painful labour, two lives that seemed unable to generate a third one. Always afraid, always something sad to tell. Not that girl. Nana is already a mother, has that fire within that could burn the forest and evaporate the marshlands.
“There will be a cost, at some point. Dabbling with the time of life is risky.”
A dry laugh escapes Nana’s throat, her eyes without any humor.
“There always is,” the girl answers, sounding much older.
So, Laguna nods towards the bed and Nana breathes deeply, nodding back before going to lie down. The spell itself is more about time than life. The potion is less about inducing than about calling. The act is as much about the child as the mother.
The powers gather around mind and heart, guiding Laguna. Being a witch in a hut had not been a choice, it was something that happened like sea currents happened—lonely as it is, the nature within her cannot be denied. She places a hand on Nana’s forehead and another on the place where her daughter’s head is, beneath the skin both their lives curve towards her call just like the young sharks search the roots of the trees to hide and grow before they can leave.
The mangrove is a nursery, and so is she.
Mother and daughter are children to her years, seeds to the forest, larvae to the fish, ripples to the tide. Laguna closes her eyes, offering herself to the powers that weave creatures together, extending a hand towards the flowing of time. It is not their time, but it never truly is—it had not been her time to fall in love or to leave the sea or to look beyond the surface, and there she was.
Laguna moves to the front, opens Nana’s legs, murmurs a chant half an invitation half the wind spreading sea foam. The eyes are still closed, somewhere she hears a scream and a declaration of love but she is now too deep to notice. Beneath the water, beneath the roots, beneath flesh and heartbeats, in the moist darkness the mangrove breathes in and breathes out, heeding to her request. Another child is being brought to the world, another daughter that will leave the drowned lands and perhaps someday return.
She dreams of that night many days after Nana and her family have left.
A dream—or nightmare—of walking through the forest at night, patiently moving, feeling mud and air, searching. The girl screams somewhere ahead, somewhere behind. Sounds like Nana when she was in pain, and it also sounds like a baby crying for the first time. Relief and despair swim together among the dead leaves clinging to her clothes. Laguna leaves no trail as she wafts through the water, being called by someone she does not know but wants desperately to.
Seeing Nana leave with a daughter in her arms had been harder than other times. Most villagers went and never looked back, came again if they needed, but never truly saw her. Nana had held her tightly, had smiled, and saw something Laguna barely remembered was there to be seen.
“Thank you, Mother,” Nana had whispered before going away. Just Mother, not Mother Mangue. Mother, she said. Mother, the nightmarish dream whispered.
It is a long while before she finally wakes up with a wish. Or maybe a conclusion, an understanding.
There is a way to end the loneliness, after all.
While sleeping, she never finds the person lost in the forest. The dream begins and ends with the search. Laguna is certain that it will happen while awake. So she walks through the mangrove, wandering until the path is right. In a bag there are the things she needs—herbs, dried fish, rainwater, an egg, and a knife. If she doesn’t come back, there is no need to carry more than that, and if she does everything else will be in the same place.
The cormorants that nest above the hut’s roof follow, watching her progress as if they knew where the journey would lead. Some of the fish go as well, the ones who live their whole lives in the murky waters. She prefers moving through the water, so the crabs are not disturbed. The animals don’t offer advice but maintain silent companionship, their gazes glowing under the filtered rays of light as the sun sets and the thin smile of the moon rises.
A crescent moon is the ideal time, she believes, and so she must hurry.
The journey follows the coastline, the same way the mangrove contours the shores of that side of the world. It cannot go inland, the sea is an important part of the ritual—life grows in the water, whatever the form. It cannot be seawards as well, because the ocean is greedy and resentful and she no longer can claim any rights to it. So the coastline it is, between tiny muddy islands and dense aggregation of trees—the trees, she discovers very quickly, are against her, make Laguna’s progress more difficult at every turn. With each step, roots weave tightly around each other, branches grow sharper, leaves turn the path darker.
She knows it is close when the forest becomes silent.
There is a clearing and the water is so still it is as if the tides had stopped. The turning of the world is slower, the animals stay behind and the Tree in the middle awaits.
It is so enormous that it is an island on its own, made of thick roots contorted in arches so wide that she could pass beneath them without bowing her back. It is blooming, it is losing leaves, it is growing new branches, it is full of propagules—it has all seasons in a single moment. It contains time and dreams and nightmares and Laguna finally understands how the villagers feel when they knock on her door.
The muddy floor becomes deeper, she must swim—the progress is slow because she has never learned how to swim with arms and legs before, with a tail it used to be so much easier. Slowly, gently, Laguna chants as her movements disturb the surface. Closer and closer, beneath the crescent moon now high in the sky.
“Please, Mother Mangue…” she repeats the words the villagers always say. Suddenly she knows where the name comes from—it is not hers, it belongs to the mangrove, to the Tree. As the words float among the aerial roots when Laguna swims beneath them, a new knowledge surges. When they come to her, they are asking the favor of the forest. Somehow, they knew it. “Please, Mother Mangue, help me.”
There is no response. The Tree doesn’t want her there anymore than she welcomes the villagers begging for help.
“I need someone.”
Further beneath the aerial roots the night is even darker, the silence is heavy, but air and water become warmer. Closer to the core, there is a safe place, she knows—she must beg to that soft spot, the same the villagers appeal to when they come in despair. Laguna begins chanting again.
The song is of her home, so distant and so deep. The words are not perfect because they were not made to be sung above the surface. The story is about the mermaid who fell in love with a sailor, the oldest tale in the world. Sacrifices are not enough for men. The melody thrums with heartbreak and betrayal, beats with the rhythm of pumped blood, reverberates through legs that were once a tail and within organs that are still more fish than human because the transmutation occurred only on the outside and appearances are limited. Mermaids are not enough for men. The truth leaks from her voice as the loneliness of her life fills that body she had to learn how to live with. The memories are vivid even after so many years, colored in shades of blue and green and brown, trapped in the mud ever since he left, preserved in the contours of decayed leaves and rotted feelings. Love is not enough for men. So the song goes and so Laguna sings.
Sings and sinks, telling of her life as she dives beneath the labyrinth of wood, begging to the heart of the Tree because neither of them are men.
“Please, Mother Mangue.”
The roots give way, at last.
Maybe it is the sadness that does it, maybe it is that the Tree also had a story of her own. Laguna resurfaces in a knot of roots, branches, leaves, and propagules. A nest ready to be used.
“Help me become a mother as well, help me earn your name.”
This time the Tree answers. It speaks in the language of submarine plants that most of creatures don’t understand and Laguna had learned through the years. There is a cost.
“There always is.”
Motherhood is not what you think.
“But it is all there is now.”
This is not true.
“It is my truth.”
Then do it, child.
Laguna almost laughs. The appearance of her youth is deceiving and she has not been a child for decades, but she knows better than to question the age of the mangrove. The Tree is the mangrove, and the mangrove is a nursery—all creatures are children to it.
She lifts herself to the nest of roots and plucks a large propagule, asking for permission before she does so. The Tree says no more, merely watches and allows. From the bag, she gets the egg—it had been conceded by the cormorants living above her roof, a blessing in its own form.
The spell is new to her, written in the dream and understood in the nightmare. With the knife she cuts the propagule in half and carefully opens the egg—both the seeds and the undeveloped bird inside she offers the sea, feeding the young sharks that have come to watch. She cuts herself, spilling the blood within the empty eggshell until it is full. Chanting, the egg of blood goes into the propagule, and with herbs she closes the gashes and conceals her wish within. Blood and bird and plant and chant, all in layers until she is holding a sphere the size of a coconut fruit—but it is not the Fruit, not yet.
Time is the last component of the magic.
Laguna builds a nest of leaves in the center of the knot of roots and places her future inside it.
“How long, Mother Mangue?”
You will know, as all mothers do.
Days, weeks, and months.
It is the first time in her life that Laguna pays attention to the passing of the seasons.
Every day she visits the nest. In the spring the egg is still small and green, pulsing. She takes to sleeping in a saline plain nearby, under the stars. In the summer it has grown, acquired brownish colors. Sometimes she hears the villagers in the distance, calling for her in the forest, and she ignores them. In the autumn the egg is the size of a newborn child and pulses in the rhythm of a heartbeat. She has so many expectations that she barely leaves the Tree’s side, it is going to be soon. But when winter comes by, nothing happens.
A year and another season pass and the nest is still gestating.
Laguna chants to the child inside the egg, tells her of the beautiful world they are going to live in, and pretends that everything is fine. She sits in the nest and lays gentle caress, ignoring the thin roots that have started to grow around it.
More springs and summers, more growing and waiting, until she stops counting.
The villagers have found her, now living in a camp near the Tree. They come to her new improvised home, but nothing they say moves Laguna to help. She believes the magic of life contained in her must all go the child—it is her turn this time, she tells them, ignoring their tears joining the saline water of the mangrove.
One day, she meets her reflection in the sea and discovers her hair turned gray. The face is no longer the same of when she walked with two legs for the first time, it has wrinkles and it has been marked by the sun. The sadness of abandonment has been replaced by the despair of uncertainty and at last, after years she has not bothered to count, Laguna wonders if Mother Mangue had removed the blessing.
The Tree is always silent, ever since the day of conception.
The egg is now completely covered in roots. When the tide rises and covers it, a sheen of red light escapes the knot covering the ball the size of a small child—it is the same shade of red her scales used to be and everything is even harder.
In her waiting, Laguna feels lonelier than before.
The forest transforms around her, following the movement of the sea. New mud islands form and disappear, generations of cormorants migrate, the villagers’ faces change as they grow and stop coming. Time takes away her power, the strength of her bones, and even the breath of her lungs—Laguna can no longer dive to see the development of the egg.
It comes a night, under the glow of the crescent moon sad smile, when she gives up.
Laguna falls on the mud, and cries looking at the sky, seeing the life before and the life she couldn’t have.
The rising tide takes her body. With the dead leaves she floats, drifting in the slow pace of the drowned forest.
It is always a competition in the mangrove. Sea and land push their waters against each other, and the path of tides dictates the direction of the streams. Laguna knows this without having to look, lets the world take her wherever it wants because there is nothing left.
She closes her eyes when at last she stops floating, now resting in some muddy beach covered by familiar canopies. Then there is a hand in her shoulder.
“Mother Mangue?” someone asks.
The voice is raspy, old, but filled with wonder.
“It is you, isn’t it? Everyone thought you were dead. Consumed by the mangrove,” the voice continues and another hand comes to her back and suddenly the person is trying to lift her.
Laguna ignores the attempts, shuts the eyes even tighter.
“I thought you had just gone on to another place, thought you deserved it. So many years you’ve served, so many live today because of you. My own child and grandchildren…”
With a deep sigh and a push, the person gets Laguna to sit. A gentle touch caresses the mass of muddy hair in her head.
“When I came here, I knew it was my turn. The hut was abandoned, so I did the best I could. My grandson even helped me, bless him, even though they don’t like the idea of me living here all alone. But it must be, the mangrove told me so, as it must have told you long ago. So, I am Mother Nana, now…are you Mother Mangue, still?”
The memory comes like a sudden downpour of rain bringing fresh water to the salted marsh. Her eyes open and there she is. The girl is now as old as she is, two crones looking at each other. Nana hugs her. Laguna cannot remember the last time she was in an embrace, or when she felt the warmth of a body. For the moment she is a child.
The girl who is no longer a girl takes her inside. The hut is changed, she barely recognizes it as her home—perhaps because it had never been home. Here and there Nana had placed little objects that reeked of affection and human connections, while in Laguna’s time there were only useful objects to the craft. The bed is new and the chairs are as soft as pillows as she sits to watch the surroundings. Cormorants above the roof still make the same noise, though, and this brings a little comfort.
“The boys bring good stuff from the new port they are building to the north,” Nana says while she pulls a kettle from the fire, the smell of an unknown tea fills the air. “They think I deserve to be pampered…me! Ha!”
Laguna listens as she rattles about her family and her journey coming back to the village after so many decades. Nana is old, but there is spring to her footsteps, a strength that resembles the fast pace of a smart crab feeding around a coconut. Her eyesight is not so good as it used to be, but if she squinted it was there around the other woman—a green and brownish aura, spreading like a tree.
“Well…would you like to tell me your story?”
Nana places the tea in the middle of her hands, the crude pottery warming both their wrinkled skins. Laguna says nothing.
“I…there is a story…” Nana sighs, then smiles. “Forgive my curiosity. It is just that the visions began after the birth of my first daughter, the one you brought to the world, and I have always wondered if you did it on purpose or if it was something else or…You told me there was a cost and I assumed it would mean losing someone later, or illness, maybe even Ian, bless his soul. I understood years ago, in a dream, when I saw a woman coming out of an egg coming out of a seed coming out of a knot of roots. The woman was me, and the woman was you, and the mangrove flourished around. The cost of my daughter’s life, I think, was more life. Life for me to deliver into the world, like you used to do.”
The cost of life.
Mother Mangue had warned, but even now Laguna does not understand. Her entire earthbound existence had been a cost, she had served and given and lived by the mangrove. Trembling hands threaten to spill the tea, but Nana grips her tighter.
The sound of her own voice is strange. Older and drier than she remembers, with an echo of waves breaking against the rocks like a distant whisper. She cleans her throat.
“My name…is Laguna.”
It is the first time she introduces herself ever since arriving in the forest, it is strange and soothing, it brings back the memory of a version of herself that had been buried beneath many layers of salt and mud and decayed leaves. Telling Nana her name is a first step. After a sip of tea, the story of her life goes tumbling out of her, bits and pieces with no coherence or purpose. Being abandoned on the fringes between land and sea, flinging her way amongst the trees, assuming a role she had not asked for.
Nana listens quietly, holds her hand like a mother or perhaps even a friend. There is no judgement, even if there is no comprehension as well. When the story is over the sun had already set and risen, and they share a moment of silence.
“So this is why you have aged.” It is the first thing Nana says.
Laguna leans against the back of the chair, she feels tired.
“Mermaids age differently.”
“But you didn’t used to. For many generations you were the mangrove witch, and time didn’t touch your skin or your hair. And now you look as old as me.”
“What are you saying, girl?”
“You are aging because of your child. Your years are being given to her.”
Although sleep and exhaustion are claiming her mind, a glimpse of understanding sinks through the fog. Laguna nods slowly.
“The cost of life.”
“Motherhood…is supposed to be a sacrifice, isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
But Laguna does not hear the response, her head tumbling into a dreamless sleep.
Life grows slower and slower, and less lonely as well.
Laguna feels more and more like a tree, movement takes effort and nothing is more comfortable than being still with feet buried in the mud. The water licks her ankles and knees depending on the tide, a caress so soft she thinks she hears the call of home, a touch so gentle she knows there is no going back. She is dying.
Nana takes care of her, tends to her few needs, and asks for advice when a woman from the village comes. Nana is a better forest witch than she ever was, there is no doubt. Helping people had been a duty for Laguna, an exchange with the mangrove, while for the other it comes naturally. One day she tells her that, but the woman just waves her head with a small smile.
When the season ends, Nana leaves the hut to collect herbs and propagules.
Three days pass before she returns, and when she does, Laguna sees in her eyes what she had found. They avoid the conversation, although she is not sure what they are afraid of. It is not as if there is something to change, or that there is more time to her life.
It is night when Nana takes her outside and they sit on the water’s edge.
“The Tree is dying.”
There is a painful tug at her heart, but she asks anyway.
“And the egg?”
“Still alive, and pulsing. Laguna…”
“I know what to do.”
“Has…Has Mother Mangue spoken to you?”
“Not in words, she is sleepy and tired as you are…She has given you a great gift.”
A burst of humorless laugh escapes her, bringing out a violent cough in the aftermath. Nana holds her arm, grips it tightly.
“Listen, she has. She is a mother and she has lived your pain, she understands.”
“But she has not given me the child I asked for.”
“Did you truly want that child, or did you just want to not be alone anymore?”
The truth is in the silence, Laguna has no energy left to pretend so she doesn’t answer. By now they know each other well, as intimately as they know the mangrove that surrounds them. Nana takes a propagule that passes floating by, begins to rip its fibers.
“Why…why wasn’t the child born?” Asking requires courage, and she feels weaker once the words leave her. “Was it punishment for my selfishness?”
“No, not punishment…” Nana offers her a resigned smile. “For this labour, we are going to need a witch.”
“You.” A sudden rush of relief runs through her bones, turns her body to mush. Being in the care of a trusted friend is a new sensation in her old life, but she feels lucky and silently thanks Mother Mangue for calling Nana back. “You are the witch in the mangrove now.”
“Yes. But it is not the time yet.”
“No…I must go, first.”
It is Nana’s turn to answer with silence, so they sit quietly for a while. The while becomes long hours, and then days.
Laguna is determined to not rise from there again.
Nana’s heart is filled with a bittersweet emotion she doesn’t know how to name.
Every day she sits by Laguna’s side and they talk, she pretends not to see that her friend is half-buried in the mood. Thin roots sprouts from the skin and arch towards the ground, longing for the water, growing with each day. The conversations they share cover memories and stories of their lives, avoiding the subject that one of the is becoming a tree.
It seems unfair that their companionship has been restricted to the end of her friend’s life, but it is useless to dwell on it. Life in the mangrove is made of cycles, children become mothers and mothers become witches—not always in that same order. They have both taken care of each other, and she feels lucky to be able to repay the favor.
The day of the birth comes. She places a kiss on Laguna’s forehead, now full of new fresh green leaves sprouting, and goes.
The Tree is dried and crumbled, the knot of roots is all that’s left.
For a moment, she is not sure if she is strong enough to do it. Laguna had the power of the sea thrumming inside her, an easy connection with the mangrove. Nana tattles where she once walked, tries while she used to simply do.
“Mother Mangue…it is time,” she whispered against the knot, feeling the warmth of a red glow escaping through the gaps. “I am here now, let her go. She is a creature of the sea and to the sea she must return.”
The mangrove is part of the sea.
Nana sighs when she hears the whisper.
“I am going to miss her as well.”
Delicately, she searches for an indentation, or a breach large enough to insert her hand in the mass of wood, anything she can use to pull. The tide is rising, and somehow, she knows this is a good sign.
The life inside pulses, like a heartbeat increasing its pace. There is movement, a pushing from within joining her attempts to pull.
“Come on, child. You have done this countless times before…” she coaxes, panting with the effort of pulling the roots aside. “You have done this for so many others, do this for yourself.”
The forest pulses and breathes around them, power flows through mud and water and salty air. Nana has felt this before, almost a lifetime ago when she was young and begged the lonely witch for help. A familiar presence invades her body, fills her soul and transforms the self—Nana is old, Mother Mangue is even older, together they are ageless. The mangrove is a nursery, and so is she. Mother and daughter are children to her years, seeds to the forest, larvae to the fish, ripples to the tide.
“Push, child, push.”
Push, child, push.
She puts a hand inside, breaches a moist surface.
“It is safe out here.”
It is safe out here.
She feels the contour of tiny arms moving, trying to rip the membrane apart.
“You are not going to be alone.”
You are not going to be alone.
She takes a deep breath, grieving the loss and celebrating the new life to come. Nana pushes the roots aside, making way for her friend.
Somewhere in the forest, near a wooden hut in a muddy island, a woman who was once a mermaid sheds her last breath. Right there amid wood and blood and arms, a newborn mermaid who was once a woman takes her first. Somewhere, the new Tree who was once a woman who was once a mermaid spread its leaves. There, the nest who was once a Tree and who knows what else before falls and sinks in the dark water.
Nana accepts the help of the rising tide, removes the child from the nest and lets her float in the surface. She is beautiful. The same dark hair, the same guarded eyes. It is the first time, and probably the last, she sees a baby mermaid and it feels like a miracle. Something the forest will remember forever, something she will carry inside until her last breath.
“Laguna…” she whispers, and the baby looks at her.
A tiny hand is stretched towards her.
“Do you know who I am?”
The child gurgles something, an attempt of talking, frowns at the bubbles she makes on the surface. Precariously, she swims around inside the protective circle of Nana’s arms.
“I don’t know if you are going to remember me, in this new life of yours. But I hope you know that I am going to be here, we are going to be here, Mother Mangue and me.” At the distance, she feels the concordance of the new Tree. The mangrove flows through Nana, and she begins to understand that Laguna was not the only one to be reborn that day. “The mangrove is part of the sea.”
The little mermaid looks up again, as if she had heard. Nana lowers herself in the water until they are eye to eye, wondering and marveling. Laguna had given birth to herself, asked for company when she had been wishing for the freedom to be again who she truly was. Motherhood of others could be a choice or even an undesired fate, but motherhood of themselves is an unavoidable for some women.
Young Laguna swims, gaining confidence in the new tail with red scales, running wider circles each taking her further away from the nest. Now that they are one and the same, Nana knows that it pains Mother Mangue to see her go. The forest had taken in the woman with a broken heart, nursed her as best as it could, and now it is time to part ways.
A pang of loneliness threatens to sip inside, but Nana pushes it aside. It is the fate of mothers seeing their children leave, but it is also true that mothers are always part of their daughters the same way the mangrove is part of the sea.